Cabinets of curiosities make a comeback - East Valley Tribune: At Home

Cabinets of curiosities make a comeback

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Posted: Sunday, September 6, 2009 10:24 am | Updated: 1:59 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

We've all come home from a trip with a "found" treasure — an unusual bit of nature's detritus, or some oddity from a quirky shop. Souvenirs remind us of our experiences, and it's fun to display them.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, explorers and merchants brought back all sorts of rare, wonderful and often shocking items from far-flung parts of the globe. These were sold to wealthy people and scientists. Exhibited initially in special rooms, over time elaborate bureaus were built to hold smaller displays.

In Europe, they were called "wunderkammern," or wonder cabinets; in America, "cabinets of curiosities."

Unusual natural elements and exotic cultural talismans were a glimpse into worlds less traveled. These collections piqued the interest of researchers who acquired them for study. To help finance their work, public admission was offered — the beginning of today's museums.

Today, there's a trend toward decorating with such exotic, "antiquarian"-looking objects. Maybe it's a backlash against minimalism and modernism. Maybe it's just fun creating imaginative dioramas from out-of-the-ordinary items.

Whatever the motivation, retailers have taken note. This fall, look for scientific illustrations of botanicals and animals in richly detailed color, as well as pen and ink. There are flora and fauna motifs in ceramics, fabrics and metallics. Intriguing boxes and trays of faux leather, crocodile and reptile skin lend exotic flair to a tablescape, and provide a repository for unusual collections.

Z Gallerie has a bowl made of metallic "branches," and vases shaped like shells, or fingers. West Elm's bedding collection includes jersey shams imprinted with reversible images of bears, ferns, owls and mushrooms. Elegant 19th century paintings of tigers and elephants adorn Williams Sonoma Home's pillows.

If you're taken enough by this theme to pursue it further, visit Evolution in New York's Soho (TheEvolutionStore.com). Chockablock with replicas of cave bear teeth, Allosaur claws, and skulls both human and animal, the store also has petrified wood bookends, fantastic shells and rocks, marble coasters imprinted with entomological nightmares, and furred, feathered and scaled taxidermy.

There is a beautiful array of German instructional canvases illustrating species of snakes, insects, flowers and trees. Many of Evolution's pieces are used as props in films, and the store's experts also work with museums and schools. All real specimens have been obtained legally, so no worries that the stuffed chipmunk ($195) came from your own backyard.

In Los Angeles, visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology (online at Mjt.org), which a contributor on yelp.com characterized as "a cross between the Museum of Natural History, an Indiana Jones movie, and a Victorian mad scientist's lair." You'll learn about Cameroon's Stink Ant, the Piercing Devil of South America and fruit stones carved into Flemish landscapes. There's stuff to buy including excellent books; tea and cookies are available.

And The Bone Room in Berkeley, Calif., stocks onyx bowls, Russian ammonites, Moroccan fossil jars and 34-inch giant clamshells. Talk about conversation starters.

As Einstein said, "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, and his eyes are dimmed." This fall, it's the Age of the Marvelous again, so put away that tired pair of candlesticks and let your tabletop get a little wild.

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